The Berzin Archives - Introductory Comparison of the Five Tibetan Traditions of Buddhism and Bon
- for example, figures embodying compassion or wisdom - only different names.
Meditation in all five Tibetan traditions entails undertaking lengthy retreats, often for three years and three phases of the moon. Retreats are preceded by intensivepreliminary practices, requiring hundreds of thousands of prostrations, mantrarepetitions, and so on. The number of preliminaries, the manner of doing them, and thestructure of the three-year retreat differ slightly from one school to another. Yet,basically, everyone practices the same.
Ritual practice is also very similar in all five. They all offer water bowls, butter lamps,and incense; sit in the same cross-legged manner; use vajras, bells, and
hand-drums; play the same types of horns, cymbals, and drums; chant in loud voices; offer and taste consecrated meat and alcohol during special ceremonies (
); and servebutter tea during all ritual assemblies. Following the originally Bon customs, they all offer
(sculpted cones of barley flour mixed with butter); enlist local spirits for protection; dispel harmful spirits with elaborate rituals; make butter sculptures on specialoccasions; and hang colorful prayer flags. They all house relics of great masters in
monuments and circumambulate them - Buddhists clockwise, Bonposcounterclockwise. Even their styles of religious art are extremely similar. Theproportions of the figures in paintings and statues always follow the same set guidelines.
Tulku System of Reincarnate Lamas
Each of the five Tibetan traditions also has the
system. Tulkus are lines of reincarnate lamas, great practitioners who direct their rebirths. When they pass away,usually in a special type of death-juncture meditation, their disciples use special meansto look for and locate their reincarnations among young children, after an appropriatetime has passed. The disciples return the young reincarnations to their former households and train them with the best teachers. Monastics and laypeople treat thetulkus of all five traditions with the highest respect. They often consult tulkus and other great masters for a
(prognostication) about important matters in their lives, usuallymade by tossing three dice while invoking one or another Buddha-figure. Although all Tibetan traditions include training in textual study, debate, ritual, andmeditation, the emphasis varies from monastery to monastery even within the sameTibetan school and from individual to individual even within the same monastery.Moreover, except for the high lamas and the elderly or sick, the monks and nuns taketurns in doing the menial labor required to support the monasteries and nunneries, suchas cleaning the assembly halls, arranging offerings, fetching water and fuel, cooking,and serving tea. Even if certain monks or nuns primarily study, debate, teach, or meditate; still, engaging in communal prayer, chanting, and ritual takes up a significantportion of everyone's day and night. To say that Gelug and Sakya emphasize study,while Kagyu and Nyingma stress meditation is a superficial generalization.
Many lineages of teachings mix and cross among the five Tibetan traditions. Thelineage of
The Guhyasamaja Tantra
, for example, passed through the translator Marpa
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